Book Review: Woman, Watching

Genre: Nonfiction | Biography

Stars: 4-1/4 out of 5

Synopsis from Goodreads: Referred to as a Canadian Rachel Carson, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence lived and worked in an isolated log cabin near North Bay. After her husband was murdered by Bolsheviks, she refused her Swedish privilege and joined the Canadian Red Cross, visiting her northern Ontario patients by dogsled. When Elzire Dionne gave birth to five babies, Louise became nurse to the Dionne Quintuplets. Repulsed by the media circus, she retreated to her wilderness cabin, where she devoted herself to studying the birds that nested in her forest. Author of six books and scores of magazine stories, de Kiriline Lawrence and her “loghouse nest” became a Mecca for international ornithologists.

Lawrence was an old woman when Merilyn Simonds moved into the woods not far away. Their paths crossed, sparking Simonds’s lifelong interest. A dedicated birder, Simonds brings her own songbird experiences from Canadian nesting grounds and Mexican wintering grounds to this deeply researched, engaging portrait of a uniquely fascinating woman.

I was interested in this title as I have read several of Rachel Carson’s works, and have a fondness of my own for birding. I thoroughly enjoyed this biography of the life of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and her extensive birding skills in the Pimisi Bay region of Canada. Definitely a strong personality and a woman far ahead of her time, she’d be just the kind of person I’d want to invite to a dinner party to hear the stories of her life.

Born into a wealthy Swedish family, who lost their family estate, Louise became a nurse and volunteered to work with the Red Cross in Russia during WWI. There, she met and fell in love with a Russian officer, who eventually was taken prisoner and executed. This story alone would have been enough to keep me turning pages, but not someone to sit and wait for life to come to her, Louise decided to move to Canada. She continued her nursing career in what we’d probably call “the frontier” in Canada, winding up being the nurse who took care of the Dionne quintuplets. (Also another story worth the price of admission.) After “retiring” from nursing, she wound up purchasing some land and dedicated herself to discovering all the details of this remote area, particularly interested in the life and migration habits of the songbirds who visited the woods around her home every spring.

Throughout her long life, she cultivated growing scientific habits, learning how to capture and band birds, how to observe them in their natural habitat, corresponded with experts and other amateur birding specialists around the globe, and wrote papers and articles describing the mating, nesting and feeding habits of many species. She was an amazing woman, definitely ground-breaking for her time, who had adventures worth telling.

Merilyn Simonds met Lawrence when she and her family moved near where Lawrence and her second husband had their remote house in the woods. It’s obvious that she greatly admired her subject, and the story of Louise’s life is exceptionally well researched. (As I was reading, I thought that Louise’s adventurous life reminded me of the author, Karen Blixen, and her writings (i.e. Out of Africa), and it turns out they were cousins; definitely cut from the same cloth.) Louise’s life was not an easy one. She often lived with very little income, in a house that had no amenities like running water or an indoor toilet, until well into the 20th century. She lived through amazing times of political turmoil, but she remained curious about the natural world around her. She was at the forefront of recognizing the harm pesticides were doing to the migratory birds, even before Rachel Carson sounded the warning call about DDT. Her attention to detail in her record-keeping and her insistence on doing things “in a proper scientific way” earned her a place in many male-dominanted organizations, where she was well-respected and appreciated.

A fascinating book about a woman I knew nothing about but whose story deserves to be told. Well-written, filled with exceptionally detailed research, I thoroughly enjoyed this one!

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Woman, Watching

  1. That sounds like a very interesting book Anne and one I’m adding to my reading list. Thank you so much for the review and your thoughts too.

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